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Address by the Information Commissioner of Canada
Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 


Check Against Delivery

Good afternoon Mr. Chairman and thank you for providing me with an opportunity to discuss once again the subject of open government.

As early as 2008, the OECD became interested in the notions of open government. It developed a Recommendation inviting member countries, including Canada, to take the necessary steps to enhance access and promote more effective use of public sector information.  Since then, governments engaged in open government initiatives have recognized the social and economic benefits of sharing information with the public in accessible and open formats. These governments, at various levels, understand that collaborating with citizens helps their citizens to make informed decisions, promotes their engagement, instils trust in government, and stimulates innovation and economic activities. These are all fundamental to the development of our democratic institutions.

I am delighted to report that since I appeared before the Committee last spring, much has happened around the world as well as in Canada.

For instance, the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron affirmed his government’s commitment to opening up data. He set a timetable for the publication of a list of datasets and made due on the early deliverables. The Australian Government responded to the Government 2.0 Task Force Report, tabled amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, established the Office of the Information Commissioner of Australia and committed to a culture of public sector openness, transparency and engagement by way of a Declaration of Open Government.

Here at home, at the federal level, some institutions have been involved in projects to make their datasets available to the public. In May 2010, the government launched an online public consultation aimed at creating a digital economy strategy for Canada. Any members of the public were invited to take part in an “ideas forum” where they could submit, share and rate ideas. Two out of the three most popular ideas were directly related to open government: participants voted in favour of creating a data portal for Canada’s public sector information and supported having greater access to publicly-funded research data.

The Chief Information Officer of Canada presented during the summer a five-point plan on open data which includes a prototype for a government portal from which raw data can be searched and extracted for re-use.  At the outset, a handful of institutions will include existing datasets into the government’s data portal with the objective of encouraging more departments to participate.

There has been a policy proposal by opposition members on open government which proposes a number of initiatives including an open data portal and a single window for accessing information requests and disclosure packages.

At the national level, I, along with my federal, provincial and territorial access to information and privacy counterparts, issued a Joint Resolution on Open Government to call for greater openness and transparency from our respective levels of government.

I am pleased that all these projects and initiatives are helping to bring open government at the forefront in Canada and hopefully will lead to significant changes.

Mr. Chairman, the last time I appeared before this Committee on this subject, I articulated five principles for a “Made-in-Canada” open government strategy for your consideration. These principles were the result of a review of and discussions with jurisdictions that are leading the open government movement. I still stand by these five principles.

In addition, I would like to offer the Committee possible short, medium and long term suggestions for achieving greater openness. In terms of possible short term improvements, there is a lot of information currently created by federal institutions that could be proactively posted on their websites.  Institutions like the National Defence, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the Treasury Board Secretariat and my office are posting online a list of summaries of access to information requests. The public in general would benefit from having this information available from all federal institutions. This is a recommendation that I made to the President of the Treasury Board in the course of my Office’s investigation into the Coordination of Access to Information Request System –also known as CAIRS.

Each federal institution could also identify, in consultation with their stakeholders, datasets or types of information that are of interest and can be quickly made available to the public.

Reform of the Access to Information Act must be a medium term goal. It is important to study possible changes to the Act in the context of open government, the digital environment the Act operates in and in light of recent changes done in other jurisdictions. For instance, issues such as mandatory timelines, education and research mandates, publication schemes and order-making power warrant further consideration.

On a longer term timetable, an open government policy cannot, in my view, fully succeed without a fundamental cultural change within public sector institutions.  The three countries we have studied – the U.S., the U.K. and Australia present different models on how to achieve this cultural change. The three offer valuable insights to transform fundamentally how public sector institutions use and disseminate their information and how they engage their citizens in a participatory democracy. These open government strategies engage citizens in a collaborative dialogue that leads to enhanced accountability, generates trust and leads to innovation.

Mr. Chairman, the strength of the open government movement is the participation of a diversity of voices. It is not limited to a small group of insiders. As Professor Nigel Shadbolt, a member of the UK Transparency Board noted: “it is important that the release of data is driven by what people want, by the formats and frequency in which they want it and by how they want to use it.” I have provided you with a list of potential witnesses that could present the Committee with additional suggestions on what can be done to achieve the goals of open government.

I will be pleased, as always Mr. Chairman, to assist the Committee in this important study.

Thank you.